Active Learning in the College Classroom

September 28, 2022

From kindergarten through graduate school, educators always look to improve student engagement and find new and better ways to help their students learn and retain information. While many theories and trends have emerged over the years in education, one particular approach appears quite promising for improving classroom learning at all levels. This approach, known as “active learning,” stands in contrast to the more traditional methods of “passive learning” that are still preferred in many classrooms. 

Educators at the college level more frequently use passive learning approaches. As a result, college classrooms are still more likely to see passive learning techniques. College-level educators will find active learning strategies particularly beneficial to their classrooms for improving students’ learning, fostering better engagement with the course material, and raising the overall level of the course. 

Read on to learn the specifics of active learning, how it differs from passive learning, and how you, as a college-level educator, can utilize active learning techniques in your college classroom to benefit your students. 

An Innovative Approach to Education

What is active teaching and learning?

As the name suggests, passive learning techniques place students in predominantly passive roles in the learning process. In a passive learning classroom, educators will usually employ techniques such as lengthy lectures and presentations, which the students are expected to absorb passively. Contemporary college educators often use “passive learning” techniques in their classrooms. 

In these types of classrooms, the instructor plays the sole active role in conveying the course information to their students, while the students themselves are relegated to taking in the information at their own pace. In essence, passive learning sees the classroom as a one-way transfer of information. The instructor does all active work, and the students receive information without an active engagement of their skills and abilities. 

A passive learning environment does have its place in colleges. Traditional lecture-based learning serves an important purpose, and most higher education instructors will find passive learning techniques useful or necessary at many points during the semester. However, passive learning techniques also have their limitations. For this reason, more and more college-level educators are employing active learning techniques in their classrooms. 

Active learning differs from passive learning in that it emphasizes the active development of each student’s knowledge and skill sets over the one-way transference of static information. While active learning has many overlapping definitions and details, an active learning approach will emphasize activities that help the students approach the course material, think more in-depth about the content, and place their newfound knowledge in the context of preexisting comprehension. 

What is active learning in college?

While elementary-level education already employs many active-learning techniques for younger learners, college classrooms present a unique opportunity for instructors to implement several different active learning approaches. The age and education level of college students provide many more avenues for new and innovative active learning activities that can help students better engage with more complex course topics.

At the same time, college educators need not feel as if they must abandon activities from K-12 classrooms just because they teach at the college level. The college classroom presents numerous avenues for implementing effective active learning techniques. 

What’s more, active learning works for all subjects at the college level. Given the open-ended and dynamic characteristics of an active learning college classroom, educators can tailor their courses with a variety of unique and creative activities based on their students’ subject matter and needs.

Why does it work?

In a purely passive learning classroom environment, the transference of information to the students is a closed-loop. Students have no connection to the course information other than retaining as much of what the instructor presents to them as possible. Students in these environments often struggle to remember the course information, as they cannot create a long-term connection between it and their preexisting conceptual knowledge framework.

However, in an active learning classroom, students will explicitly form connections between the course material and their overlapping mental models. These connections require students to think harder and more critically about the course information and make it easier for them to grasp and retain the information in the long term. 

In other cases, active learning activities may help students move their mental models and knowledge frameworks more toward the course material. In these instances, students can use the classroom activities to confront potential misconceptions that they may have brought with them to the class. They can forge a new connection to the course material that way. 

Many studies have found that active peer interaction promotes the analysis and retention of information in a classroom, regardless of the specific course content. Therefore, active learning classrooms emphasize the preexisting connection between learning retention and social interaction in a way that uses the latter to enhance the former. Active learning classroom activities let students engage with both their instructors and classroom peers, allowing them to solve problems and grasp knowledge that may be above their preexisting educational framework. 

Active Learning for College Instructors

How is active learning used in the classroom? 

As you’ve previously seen, educators can use several different activities in an active learning classroom and easily tailor them based on the course material, the course level, the student body, and preexisting knowledge. 

In practice, active learning appears in several different subsidiary learning strategies in classroom environments. One of the major subsets of active learning is “cooperative learning.” In cooperative learning, students will work together in smaller groups to jointly work through the course material, solve problems, and answer questions that they may have. Cooperative learning techniques work best in groups of three or more. These groups are large enough for students to engage with a diverse number of peer perspectives but small enough to ensure each student will participate in the cooperative learning process. 

Another, more radical subset of active learning is known as “collaborative learning.” In collaborative learning, the students in a particular classroom work together to engage with the course material. Students will also work with the instructor in an active, collaborative process. In these classroom environments, the traditional hierarchy separating the instructor from the students is removed, and the students and instructor are on equal footing as peers working through the course material together. The students and the instructor may work together to construct the course syllabus, formulate lecture notes, come up with questions, design quizzes and exams, or jointly address areas of confusion. 

These are just two examples of how educators might use active learning techniques in their classrooms. Still, they should give you a better idea of what an active learning classroom looks like and how these principles can manifest in specific classroom environments. 

How might an active learning classroom meet student needs?

Active learning has many benefits for both students and educators. Even when used to complement traditional lecture-based passive learning techniques, an active learning strategy can strengthen student learning, engagement, and retention of course information. 

When students become active participants in the learning process and make an effort to engage with course material on their own terms, their comprehension and retention become significantly higher than if they were asked to merely recall information presented to them in a lecture.

This is especially true for students from diverse or disadvantaged backgrounds. As more and more classrooms see an increasingly diverse student body regarding race, ethnicity, religion, and cultural background, an active learning approach will help all students engage with the course material based on their knowledge and values. 

Another way active learning helps meet student needs is by building connections between the students themselves. Humans are social, and classroom activities that forge social bonds between students will help them better approach the course material, both as individuals and as a group. Studies have shown that a classroom featuring more active social interaction between students has higher course completion rates than classrooms that exclusively employ nonsocial passive learning. 

Finally, active learning does not just meet the needs of the students but also the educator’s needs. If an educator can successfully employ active learning techniques in their classroom, that educator will better understand where the students are concerning the course material. The educator will see more clearly how the students are approaching and grasping the course’s core concepts. They will be able to see this play out as a cumulative, dynamic process over the entire semester or term. This dynamic picture of the students’ understanding will serve educator and student needs better than simple end-of-term assessments employed in passive learning classrooms. 

How do you engage college students in active learning?

While active learning benefits all education levels, the college classroom presents unique opportunities for educators to use many different active learning techniques. After all, not only do colleges cover more advanced subjects, but college educators often need to help their students develop higher-order thinking skills. 

Many college educators have seen particular benefits in using experiential learning projects as a way of helping their students better approach and understand the course material. A great example of an experiential learning project would be a group case study activity, where smaller groups of students would perform their own research or experimentation on a particular topic. Each student provides a unique background and performs essential roles in the final result. In addition to being an excellent example of cooperative learning techniques, these kinds of case studies are well-suited for a college classroom specifically. After all, they allow students to approach complicated subjects from their unique backgrounds while learning from their peers. 

Many examples of experiential, active learning in college classrooms take the “professional” tone. This usually means formal presentations, scientific experiments, and scholarly lectures. However, college educators should not be afraid to look back toward elementary-level education for more examples of experiential learning activities. 

For example, many college educators find that fun activities such as games and role-playing activities are just as useful in helping their college students learn and retain the course material! This is another reason college classrooms are excellent mediums for active learning techniques — college educators have much greater freedom and flexibility.

Strategies for Implementing Active Learning in the College Classroom

How to get started with active learning

The first step in the active learning process is to determine where your students are in relation to the material and how they may benefit from different activities. It may be good to start small, especially if your students are more used to a traditional lecture-based passive learning approach. You might choose one specific learning activity that you feel your students may respond well to and see how that goes. You can then build from there.

Another good strategy is to get a clear picture of the demographic makeup of the class. How many of your students come from higher-income families with a long legacy of college attendance? How many are the first in their families to attend college? How many are of different religions? Different ethnic, cultural, or national backgrounds?

In some cases, it may be a good idea to structure group activities to allow students of similar backgrounds and conceptual frameworks to work and approach the material together. In other cases, it may be better to mix and match students into groups containing a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives, so your students actively learn from each other. As always, the specific answer will vary from class to class and require you as the educator to understand what your students will best respond to. 

What are strategies for active learning in the college classroom? 

College educators have numerous options for implementing active learning techniques in their classrooms. College classrooms present educators with greater opportunities than most for using creative experiential learning activities that will help their students actively approach the course material. Some examples of potential active learning activities that an educator can use in a college classroom include:

  • Giving students one minute to write a short paper responding to the daily topic
  • Having students write out which part of the daily topic was most clear and which they had a hard time understanding
  • Having students keep a daily journal of their general responses to the course readings and lecture material
  • Pausing after a key point to let students better internalize and approach the subject matter
  • Providing an assessment early in the course that allows students to interrogate and better understand their views and preconceptions of the course material
  • Having students work through a puzzle or riddle involving the course material
  • Grouping students into pairs and having them work together to answer specific questions
  • Having students review or evaluate the work of their peers
  • Having students share and compare their notes
  • Having groups of students work out problems on the blackboard in front of the class
  • Having groups of students brainstorm lists of questions, issues, or conclusions based on that day’s topic of discussion

How do you balance conveying content with active learning?

Finding the right balance between teaching your students the course material and allowing them to approach the material on their own terms actively can be a bit tricky. Fortunately, recent developments in education innovation have afforded college educators numerous teaching resources that help forge the balance between active and passive learning in their classrooms. 

Given the stakes of education at the college level, any divergence from traditional lecture and exam learning strategies may seem like uncharted territory. But with the right resources, a firm understanding of your students, and a bit of creativity, you can employ active learning techniques in your college classroom to enhance the essential content of your course. With the right active learning resources to help you, you and your students will see the benefits sooner than later.

Moving Forward With an Active Learning Classroom

Higher education professionals don’t need to abandon the traditional lecture-based passive learning techniques with which they may be more familiar. Active and passive learning techniques can often end up complementing, rather than displacing, each other. Advanced university-level courses, such as those in the health sciences, can easily become receptacles for introducing creative learning activities for students. 

For educators who wish to implement more active learning techniques in their classrooms, the first step will always be understanding the strengths and needs of the class itself. One of the main benefits of active learning is that it affords educators a much greater deal of freedom to address the specific needs of students in creative and fun ways. When students at any level of education can approach the material actively and engagingly, work through complex problems and questions on their own terms, and orient their new knowledge in the context of their preexisting belief structure, they are far more likely to both learn and retain the material in the long-term. 

Active learning provides several new pathways for college-level students who struggle with advanced subjects in the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Health science instructors and any college-level educators can take steps today to remove the artificial barriers separating them from their students and turn their classrooms into places of active, experiential, and effective learning.

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